Covid: English schools could return 8 March 'at the earliest' - PM

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The prime minister said he knew pupils and teachers wanted "nothing more than to get back to the classroom"

Schools in England will not be able to reopen to all pupils after the February half-term, but could do so from 8 March, the prime minister has said.

Boris Johnson said this was the earliest schools could reopen and "depends on lots of things going right".

The BBC has been told the aim is for all schools and year groups in England to return at the same time.

Their return would mark the first stage in lifting the lockdown, the PM said.

He told a Downing Street news conference: "The date of 8 March is the earliest that we think it is sensible to set for schools to go back and obviously we hope that all schools will go back."

"I'm hopeful, but that's the earliest that we can do it and it depends on lots of things going right, and... it also depends on us all now continuing to work together to drive down the incidence of the disease through the basic methods we've used throughout this pandemic," he added.

There was not enough data yet to decide when to end the lockdown, he said, but intended to set out a plan for how it could be eased - and the criteria involved - in the final week of February

BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg described the 8 March date as "very much a hope and certainly not a guarantee".

Meanwhile, a further 1,725 people have died in the UK within 28 days of a positive coronavirus test, according to the latest government figures. The UK's official coronavirus death toll surpassed 100,000 on Tuesday.

Mr Johnson told MPs the country remained in a "perilous situation" as he said UK nationals and residents arriving from 30 high-risk countries would soon be ordered to quarantine in hotels.

He revealed a plan for the "gradual and phased" lifting of the lockdown in England could come in the week beginning 22 February.

Other restrictions on daily life could be eased after schools reopen, but he explained this would depend on hitting vaccination targets, the capacity of the NHS, and deaths falling.

An earlier plan for mass testing for pupils and staff remains in place, the BBC has been told.

England's schools have been closed to all but vulnerable children and those of key workers since the Christmas break.

In Scotland, it is hoped schools may begin a phased return in the middle of February.

In Wales, measures including school and college closures will be reviewed on Friday. In Northern Ireland, a review will take place on Thursday.

Catch-up plan

The prime minister said he understood frustration among pupils and teachers "and for parents and for carers who spent so many months juggling their day jobs, not only with home schooling but meeting the myriad other demands of their children from breakfast until bedtime".

The government initially planned to review England's lockdown measures - including school closures - on 15 February, which had raised hopes that pupils could return to classes after half term.

Acknowledging the impact of continued school closures, Mr Johnson pledged to "work with parents, teachers and schools to develop a long-term plan to make sure that pupils have the chance to make up their learning" before 2024.

He said £300m "of new money to schools" would fund a catch-up programme over the coming year, with financial incentives for providers to educate pupils who have missed lessons due to the pandemic.

Delay is 'no surprise'

After complaints about confusion and drift about when schools in England are going back, Boris Johnson has sought to bring some certainty.

They won't be going back straight after half term - but the target date will be 8 March.

Sources say the aim is for all schools and year groups in England, in primary and secondary, to return back on that date - rather than it being the starting date of a phased or regional return.

Although that could be subject to any changes in local Covid-19 levels.

When schools do go back it is expected there will be mass testing for pupils and staff, in the scheme initially planned for the start of term.

It still leaves parents home schooling for another five weeks - and means most of this term will have been without face-to-face lessons.

This will be a particular worry for pupils heading for whatever replaces GCSEs and A-levels this summer, after almost a full year of stop-start lessons.

Head teachers say the delay is "no surprise" - and reopening must be done safely.

And Labour says half term should be used to vaccinate teachers to help schools stay open.

But the prime minister will hope that parents would rather have some clarity about what's happening with schools, even if that means a longer delay.

Teachers' and head teachers' unions said they supported reopening schools but added that it must be safe and not rushed.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said that although the most vulnerable would be protected by March, most parents would not be.

"It fails completely to recognise the role schools have played in community transmission. The prime minister has already forgotten what he told the nation at the beginning of this lockdown, that schools are a 'vector for transmission'," she said.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders' union NAHT, said the government needs to work with head teachers to review safety measures and create a "workable plan" for schools to reopen fully.

"The government will also have to put effort into reassuring families that it is safe to send their children back to school - there is a confidence test the government must pass to make the return a success," he said.

In other developments: